47-47. .500. The middle. Average. Not great, but not bad. This is what our Cleveland Indians are as we sit here at the All-Star break.
Heading into the season, Terry Francona’s group had to deal with something that was not on the docket a year before; heightened expectations. Coming off of a 92-win, Wild Card season and bringing back essentially the same core group, the Tribe now wore a bulls-eye. They were not going to sneak up on anyone. And they haven’t.
Many expected the front office to build on the playoff experience and add some more veteran talent via the free agent market, but with big raises due to likes of Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, and Asdrubal Cabrera, the financial wiggle room just wasn’t there. Instead, they tinkered, adding outfielder David Murphy to platoon in right field with Ryan Raburn. Twice deposed closer John Axford was brought on with hopes of a resurrection at the back end of the pen. Big years were expected from that core group of young position players moving towards their prime years. Starters Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir walked into free agency and found greener pastures in Baltimore and Oakland respectively. The Indians counted on youngsters Danny Salazar and either Carlos Carrasco or Josh Tomlin would replace them.
The first half has brought moments of greatness and despair, moments of disappointment and exuberance. Certain guys have broken out, while others have taken huge steps backwards. We’ve seen regression to the mean from a few Indians as well. Hall of Fame Football coach Bill Parcells famously said “you are what you record says you are,” and the Indians are 47-47. All of this has added up to what they are; an average baseball team.
In the first of our Indians at the break series, lets start with the positives.
Michael Brantley’s All-Star season. I wrote about this last week when he was named to his first All-Star team, but it bears repeating. Dr. Smooth is undoubtedly an All-Star talent both on and off the field. You want a guy that your young kids can look up to? It’s Brantley. Not only does he come to work every single day, play hard, give no excuses, and perform at the highest level, but he does it in a completely unassuming and professional way. His teammates love him and the fans love him.
For years, everyone in this town was so concerned about the failures of one time top prospect Matt LaPorta, that it was essentially forgotten that Brantley was the player to be named later in the 2008 trade of Cy Young winner CC Sabathia. While CC failed miserably in the 2007 playoffs for the Indians, he almost single-handedly willed the Milwaukee Brewers in the postseason. Thanks to CC’s high-level performance, the Indians were allowed to choose their prospect that came along with LaPorta. They went with Brantley over a third baseman named Taylor Green.
2014 has been the Dr. Smooth show in Cleveland. He is easily the team’s best and most valuable player. I was scoffed at when I put Brantley #1 on my Tribe player Power Rankings at the end of 2013, but this first half has validated my choice. He leads in the Indians in hits (113), runs (63), doubles 22), home runs (15), RBIs (63), slugging percentage (.519), and WAR (3.1). He is second in steals (10), batting average (.322), on-base percentage (.382), and OPS (.901). Did I mention he plays a mean left field and leads all AL outfielders in assists? Or that he is hitting .360 with runners in scoring position?
Brantley started the season hitting lower in the order, but has settled in the three spot. He has been consistent each month and has avoided any sort of slump. I can’t imagine where this offense would be without his steady hand.
The Lonnie Chisenhall experience. Back in April, I wonder aloud if we had seen the last days of Lonnie Baseball. The organization spent the off-season turning catcher Carlos Santana into a third baseman. It was the equivalent of the dreaded “vote of confidence” a GM gives a coach right before loses his job. Lonnie spent most of last September on the bench while Francona chose to play veteran Mike Aviles at third. Heading into Goodyear this Spring, there was zero guarantees that Chisenhall would even make the roster, let alone start.
However, he showed up in Arizona and hit the you know what out of the ball. The broken rib of 43-year old Jason Giambi gave Chisenhall a spot on the 25-man. With the way he raked in Spring and DH at-bats available, Lonnie was getting three to four starts a week. He came roaring out the gates and forced his way into the lineup. During the hot streak, Francona used him judiciously, trying to keep Chiz in his comfort zone. He only got starts and at-bats against right-handers. In fact, even when Lonnie’s average was above .400, Francona wouldn’t let him face lefties. It got to the point that Chisenhall was so hot, his skipper had to play him every day no matter what, especially with the way some of his teammates were going.
One of the biggest moments of the baseball season was Lonnie’s July 9th three-homer, nine RBI evening in Texas. There was no stopping him. While he peaked at .393 as a regular, Chisenhall has come back to earth, but he still leads the batting average (.328), slugging percentage (.519), and OPS (.908). he has done all of this in about 100 less at-bats than the rest of the regulars. Remember the knock on him was that he couldn’t hit lefties? Well, Chiz is hitting .317/.373/.444 in 54 ABs.
Chisenhall’s ascension with the bat, shouldn’t be all that surprising. He has hit everywhere he has been, but we watched him flail away for three seasons in the majors. The good news is that the Indians stuck with him and that patience has paid off.
As for his defense? That’s another story.
Closer Cody. After watching the John Axford experiment all but fail after six weeks, Francona said he would go to a closer by committee. But the truth is there was no doubt who would be and should be taking the ball in the ninth inning with a lead; Cody Allen.
He has the closer stuff; a power arm with a filthy off-speed pitch. The arsenal is there, so is the demeanor. Nothing seems to affect Allen on the mound. He stays within himself and rarely shows his emotions. Allen just takes the ball, dominates, and closes out wins. Allen has a whopping 55 K’s in 41.2 innings pitched. He put on a clinic, striking out the side for his 12th save in Sunday’s 3-2 win over the Chicago White Sox. In his last 14 appearances, Cody has an 0.63 ERA and 21 K’s. He has also converted his last 11 save chances.
For all of the rightful criticism the Indians front office receives for their lack of high draft picks developing into quality Major Leaguers, they struck gold on a 23rd round pick three years ago. Allen is now their closer and under club control for the foreseeable future.
Corey Kluber, ace. When the Indians opened the 2014 campaign, Kluber was expected to be second banana to Justin Masterson. I thought at best, the right-hander was the second coming of Jake Westbrook, a solid yet unspectacular middle of the rotation guy who would eat a lot of innings. Instead, Kluber has turned himself into a strikeout machine and the ace of the staff.
There is zero doubt that Kluber is the best and most trusted starter in Francona’s rotation. Consider him the pitching version of Michael Brantley; a guy who comes out every fifth day, gives his team a great chance to win, and does so with little to no fanfare. Kluber’s known for his stoic manner. Nothing rattles him. Seeing him smile is a rarity. Watching him dominate happens much more often. Corey has 142 strikeouts compared to just 32 walks in 131.2 innings pitched. He has been a stabilizer and a stopper that the team has badly needed with all of the changes to the rotation through the halfway point of the season.
You can mark the Kluber for Jake Westbrook deal down in the books with the Yan Gomes and Mike Aviles for Esmil Rogers as two of GM Chris Antonetti’s absolute finest hours.
The big four. When the season opened, Axford was the closer. Allen and Shaw were the key right-handed set up men, with lefty Marc Rzepcyznski in the mix. Old gray beard Scott Atchison barely made the team as the final reliever. We have seen the likes of C.C. Lee, Vinnie Pestano, Josh Outman, Nick Hagadone, and Blake Wood come and go. The 38-year old Atchison outlasted them all.
Axford was a disaster and was moved into a middle relief role. Francona planned on using his “big four” in mix and match spots with leads and whomever was last would get the save. The moving parts settled into their roles, and when the Indians have a lead and the game is turned over to the pen, you can usually book it into the win column.
Allen has been nails as the closer while Shaw continues his stellar work in front of him. If Shaw needs to go two innings, he does. His arm is made of rubber it seems.
Rzepcyznski, who came over from the Cardinals at the trade deadline last season, has been terrific as the matchup lefty, second in holds to Shaw. Atchison has been the biggest surprise. Signed on a minor league free-agent thanks to his familiarity with Francona, Old Man Atch has been the bridge to Shaw and the eighth inning guy in a pinch. These four have kept the pen afloat all season long. The hope is that they don’t wear down.
Over the past month, the over-use commentary has died down a little, but it doesn’t mean it has gone away. Allen and Rzepcyznski are tied for the AL lead with 46 appearances. Shaw is tied for second with 45. Atchison is 38 years old and has 39.
Francona has tried to be more creative since bringing back lefty Kyle Crockett from the minors. Axford still cannot be trusted in high leverage situations. One guy who should get more run is Carlos Carrasco, the deposed fifth starter. As a reliever, he has excelled, posting an ERA under two.